NFL

Joe Burrow vs. Patrick Mahomes: Why the Bengals QB has held his own, with off-script plays a stunning strength

Joe Burrow and the Bengals will host Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 13 in one of the most hyped games of the season (watch it Sunday at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS, stream it on Paramount+)

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Bengals overcame a 14-point deficit to beat the Chiefs in Week 17 last season, and an 18-point deficit to beat them in the AFC Championship game. They were two of the best games of the year and we’ll be lucky if they can come close to repeating it in Week 13.

Burrow balled out in those contests and has proven himself a worthy challenger to Mahomes, who is clearly the alpha dog amongst the new guard of superstar QBs. Burrow is the only QB drafted since 2017 with a .500 or better record against Mahomes, among 17 QBs to face him fitting that criteria. He’s 2-0, and can become the first quarterback to beat Mahomes three straight times. 

He’s arguably put up better numbers than Mahomes since the start of last season, but one area where you would be surprised to hear Burrow has held his own against Mahomes is on off-script plays. He’s actually more efficient outside the pocket than Mahomes this year. I know that sounds crazy. We’re talking about Mahomes here. He makes plays like this: 

But stay with me. Burrow’s no statue. His athleticism is an underrated part of his game. He pulled two Houdini acts of his own at Arrowhead in the AFC Championship game. 

On third-and-long in a tie game in the fourth quarter he somehow escaped the clutches of Chris Jones, then avoided his diving tackle before getting the first down. 

He did it again on the next set of downs, side-stepping Melvin Ingram before hustling for another first. Both scrambles were for first downs. Both on third-and-long. Both on the same drive. And they led to a Bengals go-ahead field goal midway through the fourth quarter.

Burrow’s magic act has carried over to this season as he leads the NFL in passer rating outside the pocket (123.7). Not Mahomes. Not Josh Allen. Not Lamar Jackson. Joe Burrow. He’s also third in EPA per dropback on these plays (minimum 20 dropbacks), just ahead of Mahomes. So on a per-play basis, factoring in game situations, he’s more efficient than Mahomes outside the pocket this season.

Those include plays where QBs are outside the pocket by design, too, like on bootlegs and rollouts. So let’s isolate the truly unscripted plays and break them down by passes vs. runs to show Burrow’s impact.

He leads the NFL in EPA per dropback on passes and sacks when he scrambles this season. On a per-play basis, he’s the most efficient QB in the league when he scrambles outside the pocket and chooses to pass. He’s at 0.40 EPA per dropback. Mahomes is second-best at 0.16. Burrow averages 7.7 yards per pass attempt on those 28 dropbacks, including four touchdowns and no interceptions. 

He made a big momentum-changing play near the end of the first half in Nashville last week, escaping the pocket to complete a 24-yard pass on third-and-12. That set up a Cincinnati touchdown in a game they ultimately won. He also made this big play on third down in the fourth quarter while trailing at the Superdome in Week 6. Mahomes-esque:

One of my favorite throws while scouring the tape here was a touchdown pass to Samaje Perine in Week 3. Burrow scrambles to his left, adding to the degree of difficulty.

He’s no slouch when it comes to tucking and running either. He’s fourth in the NFL in EPA per dropback (0.82) on 18 scramble runs this season, behind Josh Allen (1.06), Justin Herbert (0.83) and Justin Fields (0.82). Mahomes ranks sixth (0.75). Once in a while, like in last year’s AFC Championship game, he will break your heart on a third-and-long scramble. He did this in that same game in New Orleans earlier this year, scrambling for a 19-yard touchdown once the pocket collapsed. 

Now, Burrow’s not living outside the pocket like Mahomes. I would never say he’s better on off-schedule plays. Mahomes is the king. His plays will make your eyes pop out of their sockets. If we were handing out style points, Mahomes would beat Burrow in a landslide. But, Burrow is more efficient on a per-play basis this season. It’s an important, although seldom-used weapon in his arsenal and why he’s one of the best QBs in the NFL.

His calling card will always be how he can carve up a defense from the pocket as one of the most accurate QBs in the NFL, while also stretching the field. But, he doesn’t always have that luxury. The Bengals have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. They rank 30th in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric for the second straight season. Cincinnati’s losing the battle up front more than almost every other team in the league, and even an overhauled offensive line isn’t helping much. So Burrow’s success going off script is critical.

Knowing these QBs, there could be a crucial play at the end of Sunday’s game that decides things. Don’t be surprised if it comes on an unscripted play. Don’t be surprised if the one making it is Burrow.



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